Why Young Americans Should Work Overseas

I should start off by saying the reasons laid out in this article on why young Americans should work overseas are practical and not ideological. This is not a liberal argument or a conservative argument — it’s a life argument. For two centuries, if you were young, ambitious, and college-educated, North America offered you the best opportunities. But the tides are changing and that’s no longer the case.

The odd thing is that no one in the United States seems to realize this yet. People haven’t caught on. And what does that mean? Opportunity. Tons of it.

One of my best friends recently told me that the prestigious multinational corporation he worked for was itching to permanently send him to India. They wanted him to manage their expansion into that market. And obviously, India is a huge emerging market. They gave him the Godfather offer to go — enough money to live in a mansion, with personal chefs, private drivers, everything. The irony, of course, was that my friend is a first generation Indian-American. His parents gave up everything decades ago and fought their way to the US to give their kids opportunities they would never have had back in India. They succeeded. What they didn’t expect was that the opportunity for their son they gave up everything for — it was back in India.

And such is the irony for this generation of Americans. Our grandparents immigrated to the US for opportunity. And now, in many cases, with our US education, the greater opportunity is elsewhere.

If you are college educated and under 30, there’s a significant chance that you would be better off working in a country outside of the United States and I’m here to tell you why.

Reason #1 – Your market value is higher elsewhere

So the primary argument of this whole piece boils down to this: We’ve all heard the horror stories about how college grads can’t find work or are stuck working a job they’re insanely over-qualified for. In the US, there are simply no longer enough quality jobs for everyone with a university education. We have an education surplus. It’s reached the point where many are openly questioning whether going to university is even worth it, while others call it an outright scam.

Meanwhile, you have massive emerging economies in Asia and South America that are desperate for college grads and especially for western-educated college grads.

It’s simple supply and demand. There aren’t enough jobs in the US and Europe anymore for young people. There aren’t enough highly educated people in emerging countries. Put two and two together, and your market value is much higher elsewhere.

In fact, western-educated employees are valued so highly in many parts of the world, that companies will deck you out, covering everything from your expenses, housing, transportation, as well as benefits, just to get you to come over.

Reason #2 – The quality-of-life/cost-of-living ratio is now much higher elsewhere

A friend of mine recently told me that he spoke to a luxury hotel owner in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The hotel owner was desperate to hire managers with western education. He claimed that Malaysia’s education system, while good, taught obedience and that Malays did not problem solve or think for themselves. Therefore, they made poor managers. He was willing to hire anyone — yes, anyone — with a western university degree and immediately put them in a management position, a position that would take at least five to 10 years in the industry to reach back in the US. Perks included paid housing (penthouse suite within the hotel in downtown KL), paid transportation, and all the benefits.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Hah, yeah, but who would want to live in a shithole like Koala Oompa Loompa?” I know. I thought the same thing… until I went there. I expected dusty markets with loud motorbikes, no electricity and spiders the size of my face.

But, as with most Asian cities, I got something totally unexpected: Kuala Lumpur is amazing. In fact, it’s probably a nicer city than the one you live in right now. Don’t believe me? Let’s just put it this way. I went to a mall in Kuala Lumpur and there was a ferris wheel and a roller coaster inside the mall. Yeah…

Kuala Lumpur's indoor roller coaster is better than you.
Kuala Lumpur’s indoor roller coaster is better than you.

The fact of the matter is that the developing world (minus much of Africa) has, in many ways, caught up to the developed world and caught up fast. It’s happened under our noses and we haven’t even realized it. When I started traveling the world in 2009, almost every place I went to blew my expectations away. I expected to show up to a dirt heap and get my kidneys carved out, and what I got was an amazing quality of life for my money.

Similarly, when my girlfriend, who is Brazilian, began traveling around the world a few years ago, she had the exact opposite reaction: every place she went was not nearly as nice as she expected. Why? She grew up in Brazil and assumed that the US and Europe were technological and social paradises, light years ahead of her native country. She was wrong. Over and over again — wrong, wrong, wrong.

Economists measure quality of life with different metrics. They also measure cost of living. By these metrics, usually the same countries come out on top. What nobody has measured (to my knowledge) is a quality of life PER cost of living metric. Why nobody asked me about this, I have no idea.

But it’s an easy concept to grasp. Here’s an example: $3000 per month in New York City gets you a shitty, roach-infested studio apartment in a bad part of Brooklyn or Queens and a lot of fatty take-out meals. Chances are you are working 50- or 60-hour weeks and the weather sucks six months out of the year. In Bangkok, $3000 per month gets you the nicest penthouse apartment in the city, your own driver, access to some of the best restaurants and nightlife in Asia, and you’re probably working 30- or 35-hour weeks. The high-life there is probably 90% of the high-life in NYC, but you’re now living it on the same income that got you a shitty studio apartment back in Queens.

Reason #3 – The Jobs Aren’t Coming Back

I hate to be the one that breaks this to you, but the jobs aren’t coming back. Sure, unemployment rates have dropped to below 8%, but as Republicans correctly point out, this is because people are giving up on working altogether and the real number of jobs is falling. The US government keeps reporting job growth every month, but what they fail to mention is that the job growth is slower than the overall population growth.

There is a structural change in the economy. Technological improvements mean our economy can produce more value while employing fewer workers. Economists refer to this as the de-coupling of labor and growth. Technological automation and globalization has created an economy that can grow while employing fewer people. This technology and outsourcing has also developed an economy that disproportionally rewards entrepreneurs, investors and corporations. Hence the whole “We are the 99%” hubbub a year or two ago.

And with the accelerating rate of technological advancement, the problem is only going to get worse, not better. Democrats and Republicans will continue to blame the sluggish economy and shitty job numbers on each other. But know this: that if it’s anybody’s fault, it’s Silicon Valley’s. And the same technology that has enriched our lives and allows me to write this and you to read it, is ultimately the culprit.

Shit’s changing, folks. And it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. We’re seeing a perfect storm of sorts: the decoupling of economic growth to household income and labor productivity with a simultaneous aging population. I don’t care who is president, things are going to be a mess for a while to come.

(If you’d like to learn more about this, I highly recommend reading this book: Race Against the Machine by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee)

Reason #4 – It’s time for everyone to grow up and become global citizens

Christopher Hitchens, about traveling the world, once wrote:

What I have discovered is something very ordinary and unexciting, which is that humans are the same everywhere and that the degree of variation between members of our species is very slight.

This is of course an encouraging finding; it helps arm you against news programs back home that show seething or abject masses of either fanatical or torpid people.

In another way it is a depressing finding; the sorts of things that make people quarrel and make them stupid are the same everywhere.

There’s a lot of alarmism in the media these days. Iran is going to start World War III. War between China and the US is inevitable. A bunch of rag-tag tribesmen in Pakistan are going to wrought nuclear annihilation on all of us. Drug runners in Mexico are going to chop off your limbs. Bizarrely named African rebels are going to drink your blood.

It’s time to get over the hype, move beyond the overblown cultural differences within the human species, and to get over, as Hitchens quotes Freud as saying, “the narcissism of the small difference.”

Living abroad has been one of the biggest personal growth experiences of my life. It’s given me the most unique and memorable experiences of my life. It’s made me smarter, wiser, more tolerant, and more empathetic. And I’m by no means unique in this regard. Just about any world traveler will tell you the same thing.

But the biggest asset has been eliminating my narcissism of that small difference. A lot of people throw around the cliché “broadening your horizons.” But I see it simply as engaging humanity. Recognizing that our perceptions of the dreaded “other” are dominated by the extremes. And that despite cultural differences, people are all trying to get the same needs met.

As a young adult, your biggest assets are time and ambition. If you fail today, you have the advantage of being able to start fresh tomorrow. The difference between a broke, jobless 22-year-old and a broke, jobless, 26-year-old is basically nothing. So use those four years to do something crazy, to shoot for the moon.

Leverage these years. Because one day you won’t be able to. The world is changing in ways people haven’t caught on to yet. And you can position yourself to be there to capitalize on this new borderless, instant-information economy.

Or you can position yourself as part of a by-gone era, serving up lattes at Starbucks, paying off that English Lit degree you never used, wondering where you went wrong, and why Obama (or whoever is in the White House) hasn’t fixed everything yet.

It’s your job to fix your life. So get moving.

Resources to help you work overseas:

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